Serendipity! No sooner had I finished my review of Amanda’s Weltenraum – in which I lamented that the similar retro-prog act Astra had been offline for a decade – than I discovered Astra had been revived… sort of. Astra released only two albums in their brief history: 2009’s The Weirding and 2012’s The Black Chord (the latter included in my Decade in Review article at the end of 2019). Both were seminal slabs of progressive rock that fully embraced the retro aesthetic; from mellotrons to Moog synthesisers, right down to the artwork and layout of the liner notes, these felt like unearthed artefacts from the 1970s.
A cynic could say that this was an easy way to ensure great sales without having to be innovative; many prog fans like myself are too enamoured by the ’70s sound to look away when we hear it, and when artists start to do this en masse it does make our ‘progressive’ genre actually seem quite ‘regressive’. But those arguments really seem quite weak when you consider the quality of the compositions, especially on The Black Chord – chantable anthems and riffs that would get stuck in your head for weeks. And what’s more, the songs could only work on creaky old equipment – or indeed, equipment made to sound old and creaky – so why shy away from it? We really have to stop the shame of enjoying these ‘regressive rock’ bands; not every artist needs to push the boundaries to be brilliant.
Now, it seems two members of Astra – Conor Riley and Brian Ellis – have formed a new group, Birth, seemingly with the intention of making more music that sounds just like their old band. All the retro trappings you know and love are here, the band haven’t ‘moved into the ’80s’ or anything like that. You can bet I was hyped to hear this new album.
I wish I hadn’t been. The music here, while worthy of some considerable merit, simply doesn’t touch the greatness of Astra, and it’s not easy to say why. The compositions on Born simply lack the potency of Astra’s classics. Let’s do a track-by-track analysis to see why.
Birth put their worst foot forward with Born, an instrumental that features an unexciting and strangely cringeworthy keyboard triplet theme over a plodding riff. Astra’s two albums also began with instrumentals, but both of them were energetic and filled the listener with excitement to get into the album. Born made me wonder if the rest of this collection would be as uninspired. Fortunately, this was not the case.
Both The Weirding and The Black Chord featured their epic title pieces as track #2, but unfortunately there are no epics on Born; all the tracks are under ten-minutes with the average hovering around seven. Normally, I don’t get so hung up on something as academic as track lengths – just see my review of Atlantis Chronicles’ Nera, which featured ten songs totalling 36-minutes, for proof. But epic tracks were Astra’s bread and butter; they had such a knack for building pieces that had just the right balance of tension and release, that it’s difficult to imagine Astra without them. I understand that bands don’t always set out to write long songs, and that it just sorta happens or not, but the fact that it didn’t with Birth means we cannot assess if the epic component of their songwriting abilities is still there.
Instead, the album continues with Descending Us and we are regaled in that classic melancholic sound, drenched in shades of ’70s psychedelia. A rather aggressive chorus with the phrase “space control” indicates to us that we are certainly in space rock territory, à la Hawkwind. It’s a nice little track, but beyond the chorus, which is only repeated twice, there’s not much to get the blood pumping.
For Yesterday is the promotional track for the album, and it’s not hard to see why. After a minute-long frenzied instrumental that is quite at odds with the rest of the song, the laid-back main part begins. The verse is fantastic, built on solid, memorable chords that will stick in your head, especially after they are accentuated by the following guitar solo. Birth goes on a little space ride as the solo gives way to a meandering set of themes that entertain but don’t stray too far from the verse. Much of it is very soothing and chill, with a few hints of ‘epic’ thrown in for good measure. We return to the verse, very calmly played on an acoustic guitar. It seems a given that this will lead to a more climactic finale to the song, but instead it just… stops. It’s a bit of a let down every time I reach the end.
Fortunately, if you’re listening on CD or digital, you can pretend that the following instrumental Cosmic Tears is supposed to follow straight on from For Yesterday; if you’re listening on vinyl however you’re out of luck as you’ll need to switch sides. Despite the short pause, the two songs do flow into each other nicely. I like to think of Side 2 – or the second half of this album – as the “dark” side, as things get substantially more aggressive and interesting here. Cosmic Tears gives us what we’ve been craving, a delicious, dark, driven piece in 6/8 time. As the song progresses, we are treated to variations including a jazz breakdown and multiple guitar solos.
Another Time follows, a distinctly unusual piece that alternates calm yet tense sections with vigorous technicality. This is much more like the Astra I’m fond of! The transitions between these sections have to be heard to be believed, almost as if the aggressive parts are ripping apart the structure of the song to insert themselves. The final minute-and-a-half is quite possibly my favourite moment on the record.
The album closes with Long Way Down, a more consistently themed track, dark and menacing all the way through. Once again predominantly in 6/8, the unusual rhythm tricks the listener into being unsure where the notes will fall, especially during the verse section. The song’s seven-minute runtime gives the band ample time to improvise, rock out and give a satisfying conclusion to the album.
Born is a fine slice of retro-prog, but it does have its share of shortcomings. Much of them can be traced to comparisons with Astra, the mother band. Is it fair that we judge this album by comparing it with its predecessors? Well, for one, much of the hype in the media about this band is that two of the members are Astra alumni, which means people will want to know just how they compare. But also, if one can point to some music and claim these other guys did it better – bearing in mind that all opinions on music are subjective – then is it not fair to do so? With this academic quibbling aside, Astra doesn’t appear to be coming back any time soon so this is the next best thing and we may as well treasure what we have. It might not completely satisfy your appetite, but it will certainly make your eardrums tingle.
01. Born (4:48)
02. Descending Us (6:56)
03. For Yesterday (9:14)
04. Cosmic Tears (7:41)
05. Another Time (5:36)
06. Long Way Down (7:17)
Total Time – 41:31
Conor Riley – Vocals, Synthesiser, Electric Piano, Organ, Acoustic Guitar
Brian Ellis- Guitar, Electric Piano, Percussion
Trevor Mast – Bass
Paul Marrone – Drums
Record Label: Bad Omen Productions
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 15th July 2022